Science First Look

NASA hails 'patriot and a pioneer' Eugene Cernan, the last man on the moon

Eugene Cernan, who in 1972 was the most recent man to set foot on the moon as part of the Apollo 17 mission, died on Monday.

In this Dec. 12, 1972, photo provided by NASA, Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan stands on the moon. NASA announced that former astronaut Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, died Monday, surrounded by his family.
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Eugene "Gene" Cernan, the last human to walk on the moon, passed away Monday at the age of 82.

The former astronaut played an important role in America's space program during the height of the Cold War. In addition to being one of only 12 people to have set foot on the moon, he was also only the second American to complete a successful spacewalk during a Gemini mission.

On Dec. 11, 1972, Mr. Cernan and fellow astronaut Harrison Schmitt stepped onto the moon for the first time, an experience that he later said in his biography made him no longer belong "solely to the Earth," but "to the universe." But as he touched the moon, his transmission to Houston in the moment was more awestruck: "Oh, my golly. Unbelievable."

Before becoming an astronaut, Cernan was a pilot with the US Navy. He found himself on the backup crew for Gemini 9, along with Thomas Stafford, until the primary crew was tragically killed in a plane crash before launch. With Gemini 9, Cernan became the third person in the world to complete a successful spacewalk. His 2 hours and 9 minutes spent outside the capsule was a record stretch in 1966.

Cernan's first trip to the moon happened in May 1969, during the Apollo 10 mission, though it would be over three years until he actually set foot on the lunar surface. Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal of sorts, taking measurements from orbit and testing various essential procedures that would be needed for the first actual moon landing with Apollo 11.

"I keep telling Neil Armstrong that we painted that white line in the sky all the way to the Moon down to 47,000 feet so he wouldn't get lost, and all he had to do was land," Cernan said in a 2007 interview with NASA. "Made it sort of easy for him."

With Apollo 17, Cernan finally got his chance to explore the lunar surface. Over the course of the mission, Cernan and Schmitt travelled 19 miles (30 km) across the lunar surface on a rover, gathering over 220 pounds (100 kg) of moon rocks to bring home for further study. At one point, he traced the letters TDC, the initials of his daughter, on the lunar surface. But when the time came to leave, Cernan, the last man on the moon, was reluctant to leave.

"Those steps up that ladder, they were tough to make," he said. "I didn't want to go up. I wanted to stay a while."

After leaving the space program, Cernan worked as an energy and aerospace consultant, served as chairman of an engineering company, and became a space commentator for ABC News. A lifelong advocate of space exploration, Cernan was critical of President Barack Obama's cancellation of the Constellation program, a NASA project which had aimed to send astronauts back to the moon and to Mars. After the end of the space shuttle program in 2011, Cernan also joined Armstrong to testify before a congressional committee in support of future space exploration programs.

"Gene, as he was known by so many, was a loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend," reads a statement from Cernan's family. "Even at the age of 82, Gene was passionate about sharing his desire to see the continued human exploration of space and encouraged our nation's leaders and young people to not let him remain the last man to walk on the Moon." 

Cernan is survived by his wife, Jan Nanna Cernan, his daughter and son-in-law, Tracy Cernan Woolie and Marion Woolie, step-daughters Kelly Nanna Taff and husband, Michael, and Danielle Nanna Ellis, and nine grandchildren. 

"In my last conversation with him, he spoke of his lingering desire to inspire the youth of our nation to undertake the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies, and to dare to dream and explore," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "He was one of a kind and all of us in the NASA Family will miss him greatly."

This report includes material from Reuters.